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Thursday, March 08, 2007


When I was growing up, I never understood Lent, the forty days before Easter when my Roman Catholic family “gave up” things, like eating meat on Fridays. My mother always gave up ice cream and ate cheese cake instead. I just didn’t get why God cared. When I left the Catholic Church and became a Quaker, Lent was one of the things I left behind.

For the last several years, however, Lent has become more meaningful to me. Partly it’s the influence of my husband, a Roman Catholic who has long considered it a special time of prayer and discernment. (In fact, twelve years ago we made Lent a special time to discern whether or not we should marry, and then got engaged on Holy Saturday.) The idea of giving things up, I now understand, is supposed to be connected to prayer, and a hightened compassion for those who are hungry or needy. It’s supposed to help tame our egos and make us more open to God.

The value of taming my ego finally sunk in when my children were both young. I realized that I was not very gracious about giving up sleep or privacy. I could be downright resentful when my scarce writing time was taken by a bout of pink eye or fever. I started to wonder if I’d be a better mother if I could get the hang of self-denial—not to become an egoless doormat, mind you, just more gracious about letting go when necessary.

So for the last several years, I’ve been trying to practice Lent. It actually fits very well with the Quaker ideal of simplicity. The simple soup suppers and card board rice bowls at my husband’s church are not so different from the “Right Sharing of World Resources” meals that Quakers often sponsor. By eating food a little less expensive than we’re used to and donating the saved money to charity, we become a little more aware of the billions of people in the world for whom our “simple” soup would be a feast. As I said a few posts ago, I’m preparing to lead a retreat on simplicity at the end of the month, which is helping me to reflect on the ways my own life is and isn’t simple. Aware that I consume more of the earth’s resources than I’d like, but unwilling to give up my car at this stage of my family’s life, I decided this year for Lent to give up driving over the speed limit. Let me just say, it is not going well.

I tried this the Lent after September 11, with similar results. (I described this in a Pendle Hill lecture I gave that spring; the Lent part is near the end.) Basically, I’m running into three problems: 1) I’m not that good at resisting peer pressure. Even though I belong to a counter-cultural religion and think of myself as a counter-cultural person, I get very uncomfortable when all the drivers behind me start to get impatient. It makes me aware of my own desire to please and fit in and the boundary between being considerate of others and capitulating on one’s principles. I can’t blame it all on other speeding drivers, however. Problem 2) is my inattentiveness. Nine times out of ten, I just forget to look at the speedometer. Whenever I do, I’m likely over the speed limit. And then there’s problem 3): the realization that if I slow down I might be late to wherever I’m going because I forgot to leave early enough to get their on time driving slowly. This problem just reminds me how busy our lives are and the need to slow down generally. Some of our busyness can’t be avoided, with two kids, two jobs, and two congregations. But the practice of driving slowly makes me more aware of where we’re going and why.

I’m sure it’s bad form to brag about what you’re doing for Lent, but I think I’m on safe ground, being such an utter failure. I’m trying not to feel guilty about my failures, though. Instead I’m trying to think of the speedometer as a little Buddhist chime, the purpose of which is to bring us back to awareness of the present moment. It’s just another form of simplicity.


Blogger naturalmom said...

Keep working on it, Eileen. I haven't ever observed Lent, but I have tried to drive more slowly from time to time, and it's *hard* for the very reasons you mention. It's a worthwhile exercise though. If it were easy, you would never be reminded of why you are doing it in the first place -- to be responsive to your inner Light and to be called back to prayer and the present moment.


10:38 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Thanks Stephanie. Good to hear from you.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Zeta said...

This is a very interesting post. As a Quaker myself, I find your take on Lent and its connection with simplicity interesting. I really like the connection to simplicity that you make regarding the simple suppers and simple living that the Lenten season promotes. However, I still struggle with it. I think this is because Western religion has turned the Lenten season into something it was never intended to be. Lent is intended to be a time of prayer, fasting and preparation for the Easter season. The West has turned it into a period marked by the absence of some worldly vice for forty days. Many times this lacks a connection to the true idea and concept of Lent. Minimally at least, the "sacrifice" one makes by giving up something for Lent is symbolic of a greater sacrifice. For me the idea of Quaker simplicity means that such symbolism and public display is unnecessary for the same reason that baptismal with water and communion is unnecessary. Because we can have a personal relationship with God, we need not reflect our commitment outwardly to the world symbolically; We don't rely on symbolic outward religious expression because all of life should be a religious expression that reflects the very ideas for which those symbols stand.

1:08 AM  
Blogger Mx. MB said...

When I was a toddler I experienced a little Catholic culture from my paternal grandmother and a lot in the Church of Christ, while living with my maternal grandparents from Indian Territory. When I was returned to my parents to begin school, I was enrolled in Catholic catechism at the ripe age of 5. I began formal Catholic schooling in the second grade, subsidized by my paternal grandmother. Due to a bequeathed scholarship from my great uncle Matt I was able to receive a Catholic junior high and high school education. Justice and liberation theology was taught with great seriousness as the Roman Church began to morph under Pope John XXIII. Unfortunately, the liberation envisioned by John was not completely shared by succeeding popes, nor the College of Cardinals. I began to understand that the Roman Church was more about preserving a closed and exclusive form of Church Government that has not been practical since long before the fall of Rome. After seeking God in most religions, I learned to respect those which were not top-down organizations. After over a decade and a half as a professional warrior, I found Quakers, and now have been one 24 years. Friends have no less problems with behavior than any other social group, but if the process is observed and the leading of the spirit is discerned and tested against scripture, the democratically liberating theocracy of the Quakers, I believe to be most like the churches found in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Paul. It also reflects the success of democracy as the self-governing ideal. As a Friend, every day is Easter, but my actions reflect the prayer and simple living of lent. As a prediabetic, my diet must be simple, measured and consistent. I try to eat fish everyday, when I can get it. I am on a fixed income so neither extravagance or excess figure into the equation. As a senior, I know loss and dependency. Sounds like Lent to me. The greatest experience of my life was my four years at Earlham School of Religion. I really empathize with Eileen here.

10:32 AM  

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